September 9, 2011

The Anarchists: The Nicest Terrorists You'll Ever Meet

On the eve of the tenth anniversary of 9/11, it's more than a little weird to watch Yu Yong-sik's The Anarchists (a.k.a. Anakiseuteu Anarchists) because this historical bromance about Korean terrorists who assassinate Japanese oppressors in 1920s Shanghai is so little about politics and violence and so much about brotherhood and youthful aimlessness. With a screenplay by none less than Park Chan-wook, The Anarchists isn't shy about slaughter. Men are stabbed, shot repeatedly, slit in the throat... Even women get tortured. But most of the time, this movie's all about male bonding, how young revolutionary Sang-gul (Kim In-kwon), once rescued from the gallows, comes to love and respect his mentors in the revolution. They're a likable bunch: a nihilistic opium addict named Seregay (Jang Dong-gun), a hotheaded prankster named Dol-suk (Lee Beom-su), a bespectacled didact named Myung-Gon (Kim Sang-jung) and a wannabe radical named Geun (Jeong Jun-ho) who never really seems to have his heart in the cause even as he's willing to sacrifice his life to it. Though the characters never break into a chorus of "Friendship / Friendship / Just a perfect blendship," you do get the feeling that they're humming it when the camera pans away.

Platonic loyalty is hardly unique to Park's canon. Think of the absurdly devoted women in Lady Vengeance or the extreme devotion among the soldiers in J.S.A.: Joint Security Area. But the camaraderie shared by characters written by Park but directed by others always feels more palsy-walsy than sealed in blood. In both Yu's The Anarchists and Lee Mu-yeong's The Humanist, the extremism that defines unconditional love is tempered, leaving something more like chumminess in its place. Admittedly, few directors can match Park's ability to glamorize violence without losing its grotesqueness. De Palma and Scorsese immediately come to mind. And Yu, admittedly has one scene that comes close: A slow-mo bit in which Seregay gets a bullet hole in the head then falls backwards, his descent captured at various camera angles heightening the surreality of the cigarette still smoking between his now-dead lips. But that's an isolated moment. Most bloody encounters in The Anarchists are a little too tamely respectful of the audience to actually achieve something that would earn the audience's wildly undying respect.

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